Designing Activism: How Designers are Using Their Voices to Create Change

By: BIll McCool

For a majority of folks, 2016 was a rough year. And 2017? Yeah, about that...

For some, 2016’s hangover has extended into a year-long march fraught with white-knuckled Twitter scrolling and late-night Facebook clashes with people from high school you really thought you’d never speak to again. But if there’s one silver lining to be had in all of this, it’s that folks of all political stripes are becoming more active and civically engaged, whether it’s yelling at their state representatives to uphold access to healthcare or protesting Trump’s travel ban. There are even recruitment efforts to help identify and expand the talent pool for potential female candidates right on down to the scientists screaming into the abyss that climate change is in fact a very, very real thing.

And this doesn’t just apply to an engaged electorate—even designers are stepping up their game by using their craft to make a positive impact the world over. Work that cuts through the noise and tap into our collective sense of empathy and humanity, as opposed to, say, Kendall Jenner bringing the world together with a Pepsi.

Using Your Craft to Make an Impact

“Art and creativity have always been means for moving new and provocative ideas through culture,” 72andSunny’s Director of Strategy Kelly Schoeffel says.“Now more than ever, we live in a visual world. Design is a weapon for making ideas accessible, scalable and sticky. Design can give shape to a messy point of view and it can bring beauty to a dark topic to pull more people in.”

“Designers have more power than they probably realize,” she says.

After the election, Los Angeles’s 72andSunny was determined to do something that would help disillusioned Americans make sense of what was happening to their country. As part of a side project, a group of their designers got together and started Join The UpRoar, a growing collection of downloadable and printable protest signs for every issue under the sun, including immigration and LGBTQ rights. For them, it was a chance to give themselves a voice in the resistance.

“We came up with a lot of crazy, complicated ideas we had no business executing,” Kelly says. “But then we took a look in the mirror and asked, what can we as designers and communicators contribute to the conversation? Why us?”

Kelly admits that it was a no-brainer. “Stick to what you’re good at because chances are other people can benefit from it.”

Looking to inspire a new wave of female activism, 72andSunny’s Senior Designer Mindy Benner created Pussy On Protest, a starter kit that includes a pin of her own design and a postcard that’s self-addressed to the White House that allows senders to write their own personal message to the groper-in-chief. Selling out of their first run of kits within 48 hours, all proceeds have been donated to Planned Parenthood. Benner has even collaborated with photographer Stephanie Gonot to sell prints for International Women’s Day 2017 and has been championed by such activist luminaries as Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Steve Buscemi.

Passion and Values

For some, mixing drive with a passion for a cause or idea can yield compelling and moving results.

“Every day as a designer you have the chance to show up and make something from nothing, and decide to work hard to make that ‘something’ great,” The Working Assembly’s (TWA) co-founder Jolene Delisle says.

Recently, The Working Assembly created the first advertising campaign for Acumen, an organization that has invested over $110 million dollars into companies across the globe that help entrepreneurs sustainably confront global poverty.

Using a series of portraits by renowned photographer Martin Schoeller, the New York City branding and creative agency wanted to start a conversation not only about humanizing poverty but about seeing every individual's potential. With Schoeller’s portraits, the photo is stripped of its surroundings so the viewer can engage directly with the subject, free of any preconceived notion they might have of the person. The billboards even pose questions centered around the person you see before you—failure or achiever, poverty or potential? TWA’s exercise in empathy largely succeeds because while politically there may exist a wide gulf of differences between us, but struggling in the face of great odds is a universal concept for most.

“By exploring the concept of ‘seeing people, not problems,’ we were able to quite literally put a human face to the investments that Acumen has made around the world,” Jolene says.

“What we’ve found is that by making things clear, concise, and accessible,” she adds, “we remove barriers and help people communicate more honestly, and gain a better understanding of the world and people around them. That ultimately leads to better design, and to better results for clients.” Being able to articulate a message in a straightforward manner is essential to any brand, and on its surface, it’s a fairly basic concept, but one that allows for any campaign to be heard in a more effective manner.

“That effortlessness begets authenticity,” Jolene says, “because it comes from a place of truth.”

What we hear time and time again is that consumers, particularly millennials, want to engage with brands that have a sense of authenticity, something that comes from a place of honesty. Climate got you down? Worried about the gender pay gap or access to birth control? What about LGBTQ rights? Brands that can be transparent and are seen as living their values, have much more to offer to a socially-conscientious market.

Of course, taking a stand on issues that are of great importance could potentially have a negative impact on business and alienate clients.

“We aren’t too concerned with that,” Jolene Delisle says. “Luckily for us, we work with companies whose values we align with simply because we see ourselves in them. We truly understand them and their products. We align with female-founded companies such as Lola or theSkimm because we share similar origins. We support initiatives like Define American because our office makeup consists of immigrants and minorities. If some clients disagree with a stance we take or clients we might support, then we would likely not be a good fit anyway, as we identify ourselves in those ways and with those issues.”

First Steps

So how can designers take a stand and wear their activism on their sleeves?

“The first step is to care,” Kelly Schoeffel says, “to give a fuck about something. You don’t need to solve the whole problem, that’s too intimidating. But identify a singular way to create a new conversation or an onramp to action, or to bring momentum to an existing one.”

Kelly notes that while 72andSunny is not a partisan company, they are still a purpose-driven one and most of their clients are energized by that type of outspokenness and activism. “If you want to get noticed,” she adds, “you need to make work that empowers and mobilizes other people who care about the same thing you do.  The issue should be personal, but the work cannot be self-indulgent. Lead with empathy, be generous.”

Design can be a powerful tool and can lend its voice to any number of causes when utilized in an authentic and articulate manner. Getting people to care, getting just 5 seconds of their undivided attention can be an uphill battle, but for some designers, it’s a hill worth dying on because it affords them an opportunity to live their values.

Plus, you know, it’s a lot more effective than those online petitions filling up your inbox.


Bill McCool
Bill McCool is a freelance writer based out of Los Angeles. Though new to the world of design, he has always been a storyteller by trade and he seeks to inspire and cultivate a sense of awe with the work and artists he profiles. When he's not winning over his daughters with the art of the Dad joke, he is usually working on a pilot, watching the Phillies, or cooking an elaborate meal for his wife.